The Rich Fool
Scripture - Luke 12:13-21
Our modern world is built on anxiety. You see it on the faces of people hurrying to work. You see it even more as they travel home, tired but witho having solved life’s problems. Their faces are weary, puzzled, living with the
unanswerable question as to what it all means. This world thrives on people setting higher & higher goals for themselves, & each other, so they can worry all day & all year about whether they will reach them. If they do, they set new ones. If they don’t, they feel as if they’ve failed. Was this really how we were supposed to live?
Jesus’ warnings indicate that much of the world at least, for much of human history, has faced the same problem. The difference, though, is the level to which our anxiety reaches. Many of Jesus’ hearers had only just enough to live on, & there was always the prospect that one day they wouldn’t have even that. Most of them would have maybe one spare garment, but no more. And as in most of the non-Western world today, one disaster – say the family breadwinner getting sick or injured – could mean instant poverty. And it was to people like that, not to people worried about affording smart cars & fancy vacations, that Jesus gave his clear & striking commands about not worrying over food & clothing.
We know that anxiety itself can be a killer. Stress & worry can cause disease or contribute to it – producing the prospect of people worrying about worrying, a downward spiral that perhaps only a good sense of humor can break. As with so much of his teaching, what Jesus says here goes to the heart of the way we are. To inhale a deep lungful of his good sense is health-giving at every level. But his warnings & commands go deeper as well, down to the roots of the problem he faced in confronting his contemporaries with the message of God’s kingdom. This wasn’t just good advice on how to live a happy, carefree life. This was a challenge to the very center of his - & our – world.
The man who wanted Jesus to arbitrate in a property dispute with his brother was typical in his attitude, the attitude that many of Jesus’ fellow-Jews took toward the Holy Land itself. The Land was not just where they happened to live; in the first century, as in the 21st century, possession of the Land was a vital Jewish symbol. Families clung to their inheritance for religious reasons as well as economic ones.
Jesus was coming with the message that God was changing all that. He wasn’t tightening up the defense of the Land; he was longing to shower grace & new life on people of every race & land. Israel, as far as he could see, was in danger of becoming like the man in the story who wanted the security of enough possessions to last him a long time. Societies & individuals alike can think themselves into this false security, to which the short answer is God’s: You fool! Life is not like that. The kingdom of God is not like that.
The kingdom of God, at its heart, is about God’s sovereignty sweeping the world with love & power, so that human beings, each made in the image of God & each one dearly loved, may relax in the knowledge that God is in control. Reflecting on the birds & the flowers is not meant to encourage a kind of romantic nature-mysticism, but to stimulate serious understanding: God, the creator, loves to give good gifts, loves to give you the kingdom – loves, that is, to bring his sovereign care & rescue right to your door. At the heart of Jesus’ message is the difference that Israel should have recognized, between the nations of the world & those who call God ‘Father’ – that is, between Gentile nations & Israel itself. If the gods you worship are distant & removed or are simply nature-gods witho personhood of their own, then of course you will be worried. But if your God is the father who calls you his child, then why would you not trust him? In the words of Alfred E Newman, “What, me worry?”
Jesus’ final appeal, which will be repeated various times later in Luke, is not necessarily for all followers of Jesus to get rid of all their possessions. Luke himself, in Acts, describes Christian communities in which most members live in their own houses with their own goods around them, & there is no suggestion that they are second class or rebellious members of the church. Jesus is returning to the sharing of inheritance with which our reading began, & is advocating the opposite attitude to the grasping & greed which he saw there.
When he speaks of being rich toward God, here & elsewhere, this does not mean riches that you will only possess after death. “Heaven,” after all, is God’s sphere of created reality, which, as the Lord’s Prayer suggests, will one day colonize this sphere, completely & perfectly. What matters is that the kingdom of God is bringing the values & priorities of God himself to bear on the greed & anxiety of the world. As we learned last week in our reading from Colossians, those who welcome Jesus & his kingdom-message must learn to abandon this world & live by God’s kingdom.
Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples through the demonstration of his sacrificial love. The Western world has grown weary of the Christian Church’s hypocritical words, angry judgments, & non-responsive action in the face of human need, injustice, & environmental threats. In 2017, 39.7M Americans were living in poverty – 12.3%. That includes 15.3M children 18 or younger – 21.2%. And 9.3% of seniors were living in poverty. 15.6M households – not people – accessed food from a food pantry at least once.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for us), things are even worse in Davidson County. Here, the poverty rate is 15.8% (over 25k people), child poverty is 22.8% (over 8500 children) & senior poverty is over 20%.
And what is Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission in the world? The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners & recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, & to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Sisters & brothers: if what we offer is not good news to the poor, then it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ! If we are not working to release the captive, to recover sight to the blind, or to set the oppressed free, then it is NOT kingdom work that we do! It is time for Shiloh to proclaim: THIS is the year of the Lord’s favor!
The God who created us & knows our every weakness is also the God who redeems us. With that confidence, let us commit (or re-commit, as the case may be) to work together to bring God’s kingdom into reality for our neighbors, both near & far.